A Sacred Cow of Po Biz: Robert Bly

Images: Robert Bly

Littering the Literary Landscape

Every profession possesses a spectrum of ability and talent.  Critics and scholars of and commentarians on the arts fail the public when they praise the lower end of the literary spectrum containing the frauds, the schmoozers, and the talentless.  

The art world suffers many frauds that have not been held accountable.  The poetry world suffers many of these talentless wonders whose works cannot hold up to honest scrutiny. 

Possibly because the task of unveiling the frauds is much less pleasant than studying the works and writing glowing reviews about artists and poets, too many frauds have become well-respected despite their lack of talent and ability.

Poetaster Robert Bly remains one of the central players in the art of literary fraud, not only for his failed poetry but also for littering the literary landscape with plagiarist pieces that he called “translations.”

Robert Bly: Poetaster and Plagiarist

The late Robert Bly tainted the art of translation, and his poems litter the literary landscape; the man was both a plagiarist and a poetaster.

Bly’s Perversion of Translation

Translation is an exacting art, requiring knowledge of the target language as well as the language into which the work is to be translated.  A modern plagiaristic scourge is tainting that art, and poetaster, Robert Bly, is a leading perpetrator of that scourge.

About the poetaster Robert Bly, critic and translator Eliot Weinberger has opined, “Robert Bly is a windbag, a sentimentalist, a slob in the language.”  Describing much of the output of Bly’s drivel, Weinberger writes

Not since Disney put gloves on a mouse has nature been so human: objects have “an inner grief”; alfalfa is “brave,” a butterfly “joyful,” dusk “half-drunk”; a star is “a stubborn man”; bark “calls to the rain”; “snow water glances up at the new moon.” It is a festival of pathetic fallacy.

Weinberger is especially annoyed, however, that so many college students who hanker after becoming poets tend to choose Bly as their model.  And they do so because “a Bly poem is so easy to write.”  Unrestrained by technique, Bly engages “pointless and rarely believable metaphor (who else would compare the sound of a cricket to a sailboat?)” 

Weinberger detects in Bly a “lack of emotional subtlety” that also likely attracts the immature minds of students.  He suggests that Bly’s ability to write English has been “warped by reading too many bad translations.”

One might add that not only reading bad translations has warped Bly’s facility with the English language but also his unsuccessful attempts to “translate” those works has warped the imaginations of readers for decades. 

For a significant part of Robert Bly’s literary career, the man has been “translating” the works of poets who write in Spanish, German, Swedish, Persian, Sanskrit, and many other languages. 

Bly, however, does not read, write, or understand any of the languages he supposedly “translates.”  So the result of his so-called “translations” is simply revisions of the translations of others. 

According to Robert Richman,

Bly sought to revolutionize the art of translating poetry . . . Knowing the language well wasn’t the most important factor in translating poetry, Bly insisted, since “[w]hat you are essentially doing is slipping for a moment into the mood of the other poet. . . into an emotion which you may possibly have experienced at some time.”

In truth, Bly’s ideas about translation merely allowed the translator, as James Dickey put it, to take “as many liberties as [he] wants to take with the original, it being understood that this enables [him] somehow to approach the ‘spirit’ of the poem [he] is translating.

Robert Bly takes a translation by someone who actually knows both the target language and English, who has actually translated the poem, changes some words, and calls his product a translation. 

An extended example of Bly’s fraudulent translation scheme is his publication titled The Kabir Book; he has revised forty-four of the genuine translations from One Hundred Poems of Kabir, by Rabindranath Tagore, Indian Nobel Laureate, and Evelyn Underhill, renowned spiritual writer and recipient of numerous honorary degrees. 

Bly would have his readers believe his revisions of the translations of these outstanding creative thinkers better represent Kabir. Bly’s folly leads him astray.

Image: Rabindranath Tagore

Image:  Evelyn Underhill  

Tagore-Underhill’s Translations “Hopeless”

In Bly’s introduction to The Kabir Book, he claims that the Tagore-Underhill translations are “hopeless.” He does not explain what he means by “hopeless,” but he does claim that his purpose for re-translating some of the poems is to modernize them, put them into contemporary language. 

However, he has attempted to fix something that was not broken.   His claim that the Tagore translations are “hopeless” reveals part of the problem with Bly; if he found them “hopeless,” then obviously there is no way he could understand them well enough to improve on Tagore’s translations.

Instead of merely modernizing the language, he loosens the diction, causing it to descend into a talky, laid-back kind of style that is not appropriate for its purpose.

The religious significance that these works have for the yogi-saint Kabir and his followers has been transformed into a libertine, 1960s-style free-love fest instead of the divine union of soul and God, as is their purpose.

Because the poet Kabir was a God-realized saint, his poems and songs reflect the deep religious significance of his state of consciousness. They essentially perform two functions: the first is to express in words as nearly as possible the saint’s devotion to God, and the second is to inspire and instruct his followers.

According to yogic philosophy and training, the yogi who has succeeded in uniting his own soul with God has risen above all earthly, physical desires. Such a saint has only two desires left, and those two desires correspond to the above purposes ascribed to Kabir’s songs: to continue to enjoy union with God and to share it with others.

Image T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot’s Recognized the “Romantic Misunderstanding”

Many Western thinkers, philosophers, and poets such as W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence have attempted to explain Eastern religion to the West. But T. S. Eliot noticed that he had great difficulty trying to understand Eastern philosophy.

And Eliot admitted his difficulty and at the same time observed that what was passing as Eastern philosophical analysis was “romantic misunderstanding”:

And I came to the conclusion seeing also that the ‘influence’ of Brahmin and Buddhist thought upon Europe, as in Schopenhauer, Hartmann, and Deussen, had largely been through romantic misunderstanding . . .

I suggest that this misunderstanding is evident in Bly’s version of the Tagore-Underhill translations.  And because of the lack of understanding, Bly was unable to do what he claimed he was doing, making the poems more accessible to the modern reader. 

He claims he had become fond of the “interiors” of the poems he chose to “translate,” but in reality his fondness rests on his own misunderstanding of what those “interiors” actually mean.

Comparison:  Bly vs Tagore-Underhill

Robert Bly’s folly is apparent in the following so-called translation:

Knowing nothing shuts the iron gates;
the new love opens them.
The sound of the gates opening wakes
the beautiful woman asleep.
Kabir says: Fantastic! Don’t let a
chance like this go by!

The Tagore-Underhill translation follows:

The lock of error shuts the gate, open
it with the key of love:
Thus, by opening the door, thou shalt
wake the Beloved.
Kabir says: ‘O brother! Do not pass
by such a good fortune as this.’

Bly’s version has transformed the meaning from God-union to sexual union. Yogic philosophy claims that intense love for God awakens the soul and aids it in its search for God-union. The Tagore-Underhill translation has retained this spiritual significance.

“The lock of error” signifies the human’s mistaken belief that he is separate from God. Therefore, “love” opens the “gate” of separation.

By opening the gate, the devotee awakens the “Belovèd”—capitalized because it refers to God. Because the yogi’s goal is to awaken his desire for God, Kabir as the yogi-guru admonished his follower not to pass by such good fortune as can be found by unlocking his heart of love to God.

In Bly’s version, the poem promotes a sexual opportunity. Few readers can pass by “iron gates” without their calling to mind Andrew Marvell’s “Coy Mistress.” And we have little doubt about what Marvell’s speaker was seeking with his coy mistress.

More importantly, “Belovèd” of the Tagore-Underhill version becomes in Bly’s “the beautiful woman asleep.” This kind of misrepresentation is a prototypical example of what T. S. Eliot meant when he claimed that Eastern influence on the West had come through “romantic misunderstanding.”

After transforming the Supreme Being into a beautiful woman, Bly has the yogi-saint cry: “Fantastic! Don’t let a change like this go by!” This mind-numbing act is an abomination, revealing an ignorance that would be funny if it were not so utterly misleading.

Bly’s Translation Career Based on Plagiarism

What Bly has actually accomplished in his “translation” career amounts to a large body of plagiarism of the original translators’ works. In addition to plagiarism instead of actual translation, Bly has misrepresented, distorted, and vulgarized the works of poets, whose works he obviously has not understood.

Image:  Robert Bly

Two Sample Poems: “The Cat in the Kitchen” and “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter”

The following sample pieces of doggerel by Robert Bly exemplify the style of the poetaster and the types of subjects he addresses.

Two versions of “The Cat in the Kitchen” are extant.  They both suffer from the same nonsense:  the speaker seems to be spouting whatever enters his head without bothering to communicate a cogent thought.

His 5-line piece, “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter,” is a fascinating conglomeration of images that results in a facile display of redundancy and an unfortunate missed opportunity.

Introduction and Text of  “The Cat in the Kitchen”

Robert Bly’s penchant for nonsense knows no bounds.  Most of his pieces of doggerel suffer from what seems to be an attempt to engage in stream-of-consciousness but  without any actual consciousness. 

The following paraphrase of Bly’s “The Cat in the Kitchen” demonstrates the poverty of thought this poetaster suffers as he churns out his doggerel: A man falling into a pond is like the night wind which is like an old woman in the kitchen cooking for her cat.

The Cat in the Kitchen

Have you heard about the boy who walked by
The black water? I won’t say much more.
Let’s wait a few years. It wanted to be entered.
Sometimes a man walks by a pond, and a hand
Reaches out and pulls him in.

There was no
Intention, exactly. The pond was lonely, or needed
Calcium, bones would do. What happened then?

It was a little like the night wind, which is soft,
And moves slowly, sighing like an old woman
In her kitchen late at night, moving pans
About, lighting a fire, making some food for the cat.

Commentary on “Cat in the Kitchen”

The two versions of this piece that are extant both suffer from the same nonsense:  the speaker seems to be spouting whatever enters his head without bothering to communicate a cogent thought.  Unfortunately, that description seems to be the modus operandi of this poetaster.

The version titled “The Cat in the Kitchen” has three versagraphs, while the one titled “The Old Woman Frying Perch” boasts only two, as it sheds one line by combining lines six and seven from the Cat/Kitchen version.

(Please Note: “Versagraph” is a term I coined; it is the conflation of “verse” and “paragraph,” the primary unit of free verse, as opposed to the “stanza,” the primary unit for rimed/metered verse. Also note:The spelling, “rhyme,” was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see “Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.”)

First Versagraph:  A Silly Question

Have you heard about the boy who walked by
The black water? I won’t say much more.
Let’s wait a few years. It wanted to be entered.
Sometimes a man walks by a pond, and a hand
Reaches out and pulls him in.

In Robert Bly’s “The Cat in the Kitchen,” the first versagraph begins with a question: “Have you heard about the boy who walked by / The black water?” Then the speaker says, “I won’t say much more,” when, in fact, he has only asked a question. If he is not going to say much more, he has ten more lines in which not to say it.

However, he then makes an odd demand of the reader: “Let’s wait a few years.” The speaker seems to be suggesting that readers stop reading the piece in the middle of the third line. Why do they have to wait? How many years?

By the middle of the third line, this piece has taken its readers down several blind alleys. So next, the speaker, possibly after waiting a few years, begins to dramatize his thoughts: “It wanted to be entered.”

It surely refers to the black water which is surely the pond in the fourth line. The time frame may, in fact, be years later because now the speaker claims, “sometimes a man walks by a pond, and a hand / Reaches out and pulls him in.”

The reader cannot determine that the man is the boy from the first line; possibly, there have been any number of unidentified men whom the hand habitually stretches forth to grab.

Second Versagraph:   Lonely Lake Needing Calcium

There was no
Intention, exactly. The pond was lonely, or needed
Calcium, bones would do. What happened then?

The second verse paragraph offers the reasoning behind a pond reaching out its hand and grabbing some man who is walking by: “There was no / Intention, exactly.” It did not exactly intend to pull him in, but it “was lonely, or needed / Calcium, bones would do.”

Then the speaker asks a second question: “What happened then?” This question seems nonsensical because it is the speaker who is telling this tale. But the reader might take this question as a rhetorical device that merely signals the speaker’s intention to answer the question that he anticipates has popped into the mind of his reader.

Third Versagraph:  It Was Like What

It was a little like the night wind, which is soft,
And moves slowly, sighing like an old woman
In her kitchen late at night, moving pans
About, lighting a fire, making some food for the cat.

Now the speaker tells the reader what it was like. There is a lack of clarity as to what the pronoun “it” refers, but readers have no choice but take “it” to mean the phenomenon of the pond reaching out its hand, grabbing a man who was walking by, and pulling him into the water because it was lonely or needed calcium.

Thus this situation resembles what?  “It was a little like the night wind, which is soft, / And moves slowly, sighing like an old woman / In her kitchen late at night, moving pans / About, lighting a fire, making some food for the cat.” 

Now you know what would cause a lonely, calcium deficient pond reach out and grab a man, pull him into its reaches, and consequently devour him.

Alternate Version: “The Old Woman Frying Perch”

In a slightly different version of this work called “Old Woman Frying Perch,” Bly used the word “malice” instead of “intention”. And in the last line, instead of the rather flabby “making some food for the cat,” the old woman is “frying some perch for the cat.”

The Old Woman Frying Perch

Have you heard about the boy who walked by
The black water? I won’t say much more.
Let’s wait a few years. It wanted to be entered.
Sometimes a man walks by a pond, and a hand
Reaches out and pulls him in. There was no
Malice, exactly. The pond was lonely, or needed
Calcium. Bones would do. What happened then?

It was a little like the night wind, which is soft,
And moves slowly, sighing like an old woman
In her kitchen late at night, moving pans
About, lighting a fire, frying some perch for the cat.

For Donald Hall

While the main problem of absurdity remains, this piece is superior to “The Cat in the Kitchen” because of two changes:  “malice” is more specific than “intention,” and “frying perch” is more specific than “making food.”

However, the change in title alters the potential focus of each piece without any actual change of focus.The tin ear of this poetaster has resulted in two pieces of doggerel, one just a pathetic as the other.  

Robert Bly dedicates this piece to former poet laureate, Donald Hall—a private joke, possibly?

Image: Robert Bly

Introduction and Text of “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter”

Technically, this aggregate of lines that constitute Robert Bly’s “Driving to Town to Mail a Letter” could be considered a versanelle*; it does make a critical comment on human nature, although quite by accident and not at all what the poet likely attempted to accomplish.

Human beings do love to waste time; although they seldom like to brag about it or lie about it, as seems to be case with the speaker in this piece.

*Versanelle: a short narration that comments on human nature or behavior, and may employ any of the usual poetic devices (term coined by Linda Sue Grimes)

Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.

Commentary on “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter”

This 5-line piece by doggerelist Robert Bly simply stacks untreated image upon image, resulting in a stagnant bureaucracy of redundant blather, as well as a missed opportunity to become a useful piece.

First Line:  “It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted

The first line consists of two sentences; the first sentence asserts, “It is a cold and snowy

night.”  That sentence echoes the line, “It was a dark and stormy night, by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose name is synonymous with atrocious writing

So much so that there is a contest named for him, “The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest” with the subtitle where WWW means “Wretched Writers Welcome.”

The second sentence proclaims, “The main street is deserted.” The title of the poem alerts the reader that the speaker is out late at night, and this line supports that claim that he is out and about so late that he is virtually the only one out.

This assertion also tells that reader that the town must be a very small town because large towns will almost always have some activity, no matter how late, no matter how cold.

Second Line:  “The only things moving are swirls of snow”

The second line reiterates the deserted image of the first line’s second sentence: “The only things moving are swirls of snow.” Of course, if the street were deserted, there would be no activity, or virtually no activity, so the speaker’s redundancy is rather flagrant.

The reader already knows there is snow from the first image of a cold and snowy night; therefore, the second line is a throwaway line.

The speaker is giving himself only five lines to convey his message, and he blows one on a line that merely repeats what he has already conveyed, instead of offering some fresh insight into his little jaunt into town.

Third Line:  “As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron”

The third line is incredible in it facileness: “As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.” Such a line might be expected in a beginning poet’s workshop efforts.

The speaker had to have a line that shows he is mailing a letter, and he, no doubt, thinks this does it while adding the drama of “lift[ing] the mailbox door” and adding that he feels the coldness in the letter-box’s iron. 

It’s a lame drama at best; from the information offered already both the cold iron and lifting the mailbox lid are already anticipated by the reader, meaning this line adds nothing to the scene.

Fourth Line:  “There is a privacy I love in this snowy night”

This line offers the real kernel of poetry for this conglomeration of lines. If the speaker had begun with this line, perhaps revising it to “I love the privacy of a snowy night,” and let the reader go with him to mail his letter, the experience could have been an inspiring one.

The cold, snowy night of privacy, the deserted main street, the swirls of snow, the mailbox door set on a new stage without the insipid redundancy might have come together to make a brilliant little versanelle, instead of the flat verse that resulted from this arrangement.

Fifth Line:  “Driving around, I will waste more time”

The final line, “Driving around, I will waste more time,” gives the flavor of James Wright’s “I have wasted my life” in his excellent poetic performance, “Lying In A Hammock At William Duffy’s Farm In Pine Island, Minnesota.”

There is a major difference between Wright’s poem and Bly’s doggerel: Wright’s speaker is believable, genuine, authentic. Bly’s empty verse is quite opposite in every aspect, especially as Bly’s speaker proclaims he will ride around wasting more time.

That claim is non-sense. Does he actually believe that mailing a letter is a waste of time? If he does, he has not made it clear why he would think that. It just seems that he has forgotten what the poems is about.

Image: Robert Bly, circa 1990

Robert Bly Redefines the Image:  Imagism vs Picturism

According to the American poetaster, Robert Bly, American readers “can’t tell when a man is counterfeiting and when he isn’t.”  What might this view of one’s audience imply for one’s artistic integrity?

When Images are Images

In Robert Bly’s prose ramblings titled American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity, the quintessential poetaster defines the literary device known as “image”: “An image and a picture differ, in that the image being the natural speech of the imagination, cannot be drawn from or inserted back into the natural world.”

Bly seems to be focusing entirely on visual imagery, as he defines “image” against “picture”; imagery, of course, includes specific language that may appeal to any of the five senses, not just sight.  For example, Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night”

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

The poem begins and ends steeped in imagery—mostly visual, but two lines contain images  that appeal to sight, sound, and smell: “A tap at the pane (visual), the quick sharp scratch (auditory) / And blue spurt of a lighted match (olfactory).”

These lines portray a lover tapping at the window of his beloved: we can see him and hear his tapping. He then strikes a match, and we can hear the match head scraping against some rough object, we can see the flame, and we can also smell the sulfur from the match as it bursts into flame.

But according to Bly these images are not images at all, they are merely pictures.  They all do appear in nature; they all are retained in the memory so that after reencountering them, the reader/listener can grasp the scene that the lover is experiencing in the poem.

Imagination and Memory

We have, indeed, used our imaginations to help us see, hear, and smell these Brownian images. Not only imagination but also memory.  We must be able to remember the smell of a match or the sound of a tap on a windowpane, in order to be able to grasp the drama that Browning has created.

Is this portrayal simply “picturism” because our grasp of it “can be drawn from [and] inserted back into the natural world”?  Imagination and memory work together in our understanding of any text.

The memory consists of information that is in the memory repository (the subconscious, often misconstrued as “the unconscious”), while the imagination works at connecting information gathered from experience, feelings, and thoughts, all of which are represented by language.

If our memory and imagination were not capable of acting on language this way, we would not be able to understand any text. We cannot understand a language we have not learned, because words of the foreign language are not stored in our memory; the imagination has nothing to which it can connect the unknown words.

If, however, an image is, as Bly defines it, “the natural speech of the imagination” but “cannot be drawn from or inserted back into the natural world,” then how can we ever understand the image?

If the imagination is a place where sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch do not hold those things that comprise the “natural world,” then what is within the purview of the imagination?

Of course, there are connections that the memory and imagination can make that are on their face absurd, surreal, or simply false.  But those connections are not the stuff of poetry or any art, unless they are being used in the art for refutation against counterfeiting.  

Such phenomena may comprise the initial writing exercises known as brain-storming or pre-writing, but if they are left in an unformed, unpolished state they will remain incommunicable at best and ugly at worst.

Image vs Picture

Bly has offered for comparison the following phrases, one he considers an image and one he considers a picture:  His example of an image is Bonnefoy’s “interior sea lighted by turning eagles,” which he contrasts with Pound’s “Petals on a wet black bough.” 

According to Bly, Bonnefoy’s phrase is not taken from nature and cannot be inserted back into the natural world, while Pound’s can be.  Keep in mind that Bly has called for poets to, “ask the unconscious . . . to enter the poem and contribute a few images that we may not fully understand.”

Misconstruing “unconscious” for “subconscious,” Bly is begging for absurdity.  He wishes to experience gibberish phrases, for that is all they can ever be, if not based on a language that is common to us all.  And is it really true that Bonnefoy’s phrase is not taken from nature and cannot be inserted back into the natural world? 

An “interior sea” obviously represents metaphorically the mind (and possibly the soul), while the “turning eagles” are certain thoughts that are illuminating the surface of that sea.

If the components of that phrase— “sea,” “eagles,” “lighted”—appeared nowhere in nature but only in the subconscious of the poet, they would not be intelligible to anyone conversant in the English language.

Bly is skirting the real issue of language attempting to explain the unexplainable or perhaps by simply remaining unaware of the distinction between the phenomenon of what is effable and what is ineffable. 

The ineffable—that is, the world beyond the physical level of being—is not explainable in worldly language. (This fact remains the foundation on which atheism is built.)

Therefore, the poetry devices of metaphor, simile, image, and often personification are employed to make that valiant attempt to communicate what exists and what is happening on that ineffable level of being. 

Bly likely does this because his secularism has overtaken his ability to vouchsafe that a spiritual level of existence is real but remains beyond human language ability to describe it without metaphors and other poetic devices.

Two examples of Bly’s own so-called images further demonstrate the poverty of his image vs picture claims. In his piece titled “Driving Toward Lac Qui Parle River,” he concocts the lines: “water kneeling in the moonlight” and “The lamplight falls on all fours in the grass.”

The absurdity of water going down on its knees is simply one of the nonsense creations that upon further consideration would find a better phrasing.  And making an animal of lamplight screams out, “look at me, I’m saying something totally original.”  

With both lines, the scribbler is merely “counterfeiting.”  He has nothing to say and so he knows it matters not one whit how he does not say it.

That his “‘unconscious’ (sic, should be subconscious) has enter[ed] the poem and contribute[d] a few images that we may not fully understand,” is, of course, one silly way of covering such laziness.

Today’s Poetry Is Without the Image?

While Bly’s definition of the image as something that cannot be drawn from or returned to the natural world is absurd, so is his claim, “The poetry we have now is a poetry without the image.” This statement is false, not only false but impossible, as private tutor Kerry Kiefer has opined, after being asked the question, [are] there any poems with no imagery in them that are good?:

Your question might be answered more satisfactorily by a linguist: one who studies the underlying principles of language could tell you more exactly why it is impossible for human beings to communicate without imagery. I just instinctively know it is impossible

Here are a few examples of contemporary poems that definitely are not without the image: from Linda Pastan’s “The Cossacks”: “those are hoofbeats / on the frosty autumn air”; from Ted Kooser’s “Dishwater”: “a bridge that leaps from her hot red hands / and hangs there shining for fifty years / over the mystified chickens,” and from Donald Hall’s “The Painted Bed”: “Grisly, foul, and terrific / is the speech of bones.”

These images and all the many poems that employ imagery testify to the false Bly claim that today’s poetry is imageless.  Of course, the Bly defined image does not and cannot appear in poetry without its concomitant clash with understanding and appreciation. 

If he would claim that no images according to the Blyian definition exists, he would be spot on.  Because his own absurd examples do not exist as poetry but mere debris of language twaddle.  Basically, the impossibility of making a image according the Bly’s definition remains operative.


In his American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity, Bly assaults the work of the poet Robert Lowell, particularly Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” 

Bly quotes several passages that he particularly despises, calling them “coarse and ugly,” “unimaginative,” and then explains that Lowell is counterfeiting, “pretending to be saying passionate things . . . , and the passage means nothing at all.”

Bly’s American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity, his collection of prose ramblings, demonstrates, one might argue, the bankruptcy of Bly’s own critical vision, and his chapter on Lowell, titled “Robert Lowell’s Bankruptcy,” is one of the most revealing; the exact weaknesses for which Bly criticizes Lowell attach only to Bly.

Quite possibly, Bly reveals the reason that he has been able to “counterfeit” a career in poetry, when he says, “. . . for American readers are so far from standing at the center of themselves that they can’t tell when a man is counterfeiting and when he isn’t” (my emphasis). Is this, perhaps, an admission regarding your own art, Mr. Bly? 

If an artist espouses such a derogatory notion about his audience, what is there to keep him honest? What does this imply about the integrity of his own art?

Redefining the Image into Nothingness

In order to claim that images are not images but pictures and that there are no images in today’s poetry, Bly has concocted an impossible, unworkable, and totally fraudulent definition of “image.”  To perpetuate such a gross literary scam upon the already destitute literary world is, indeed, a travesty.

According to Kevin Bushell,  “Such vague and metaphorical theoretical statements are characteristic of Bly, who seems reluctant to speak about technique in conventional terms.”

It is little wonder that poetry possesses little heft in the 21st century, after the drubbing it has taken at the hands of modernists, postmodernists, and outright scam artists like Bly and his ilk in the 20th century.

Image:  Robert Bly

In Memoriam:  Robert Bly
December 23, 1926 – November 21, 2021

Requiescat in Pace.

Poetaster Robert Bly, the greatest flim-flam artist that po-biz has ever foisted upon the literary world, has passed on to his reward.  Ironically, among his hagiographies will remain criticism like the one by Suzanne Gordon, “‘Positive Patriarchy’ Is Still Domination : ‘Iron John’: Robert Bly’s devoted followers seem not to grasp what his message really means to women.” 

While his recycled mythos, Iron John, surely earned him financial rewards and much recognition that his doggerel never had, that twisted tome will also remain as testimony to the man’s warped thinking.  Ironic indeed that the man who thought of himself as a feminist turned out not to have had a feminist bone in his body.

I met Bly at Ball State University during a poetry workshop in the summer 1977.  He held private sessions to offer us budding poets criticism of our poetic efforts.  As I approached him, he planted a big kiss upon my lips before beginning the critique.  Shocked at the impertinence, nevertheless, I just figured that was his way and then flung the incident down the memory hole.

The advice he offered regarding my poem was less than worthless.  For example, I had a line, “slow as sorghum on the lip of a jar.”  He called that vague and suggested that I somehow work my grandmother into the line, something like “my grandmother’s jar had a rim of sorghum.” (I was 31 years old at the time, but no doubt looked little more than 12). 

That idiotic suggestion has colored my view of the man’s poetry, even more than his deceitful claims of “translations”; at the same workshop, he had taught a group of us how to “translate” poems, which was little more than reworking other people’s actual translations.

Anyway, may he rest in peace.  He was persistent in his folly, and although William Blake famously opined, “If a fool persists in his folly, he becomes wise,”  it remains doubtful that claim actually applies, especially in Bly’s case.

Sources for “Robert Bly: Poetaster and Plagiarist”


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